Ralph Coburn’s early artistic career flourished within the landscapes of Boston and France amidst rich social interactions and inspiring, sometimes unofficial academic resources. Despite his deep ties to a community of artists on both sides of the Atlantic, Coburn created a visual vocabulary quite distinct from his Boston Expressionist colleagues. Marked by elegant, restrained observations of the urban and rural forms around him, his drawings and collages from 1949–1956 reveal an experimental sensibility and a remarkably instinctual ability to see unusual spatial relationships and patterns of light and dark.
Born in Minneapolis in 1923, Coburn’s family moved a few years later to Miami Beach where he enjoyed his high school art classes and spent his youth surrounded by the fresh stucco of Art Deco buildings and bright bands of land, sea, and sky. In the fall of 1941, as America was about to enter World War II, Coburn arrived in Boston to study architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and quickly made connections with friends and mentors who introduced him to avant-garde ways of thinking. Professor Bill Brown, with whom Coburn studied abstract design, and upperclassman Walter Netsch, who would go on to a prestigious career with the architectural firm Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, both played an important role in shaping Coburn’s early thirst for alternatives to the traditional aesthetic of MIT’s academic program.1 Through Netsch and Brown, Coburn discovered modern composers such as Shostakovich and attended lectures by Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer at the Bauhaus-influenced Harvard Graduate School of Design. He also learned about Mondrian’s theories of color and composition which advocated, among other things, the construction of a work of art from the beauty of harmoniously arranged lines.
During these years at MIT, Coburn participated in collaborative projects with students at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where assignments might involve the art students creating murals for a space designed by the architecture students. Coburn was drawn to the liveliness of this interdisciplinary atmosphere and the allure of the art community. He recalls, “I met the kids from the Museum School and they were so much more interesting and more glamorous than the architects that I said ‘I’ve got to be an artist.’ Architecture was just not that interesting to me and I had to be an artist.”2
Coburn’s study at MIT was interrupted in 1944 when he was called to military service. He went back to Miami, but problems with his eyesight prevented him from enlisting, and he found work instead as a draftsman for the Air Force at the Miami Air Depot. By the summer of 1945, Coburn was able to return to Boston where he lived with relatives and worked for an architect before briefly returning to classes at MIT that fall. Coburn reconnected with friends at the Museum School and almost immediately decided to withdraw from the architecture program to pursue a career as an artist. From 1946 to early 1949, Coburn schooled himself in the broad history of art—from Byzantine and Romanesque to contemporary—with visits to the MFA, the Fogg Art Museum, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. His friend Hyman Swetzoff worked at the Institute of Modern Art (scandalously renamed in 1948, and known now as the Institute of Contemporary Art 3) where Coburn worked on a part-time basis. When Swetzoff left to become the director at the Boris Mirski Gallery on Newbury Street, Coburn followed and was soon not only working at Mirski, but also living above the gallery and taking the informal art classes they offered. Carl Nelson, a painter from Chicago, taught at Mirski from 1945–47 and furthered Coburn’s awareness of an avant-garde scene that included people such as John Cage and Merce Cunningham. Coburn later recalled the diversity of art and ideas that shaped his informal education during these years in Boston: “I was under the influence of not only the Boston Expressionists, but also Carl Nelson from Chicago who was a friend of Cunningham and John Cage. There was that influence and the fairly distant influence of the Bauhaus, and Harvard.”
During these years, Coburn formed many important friendships with Boston artists including Barbara Swan, Bernard Chaet, John Wilson, Ellsworth Kelly, Esther Geller, Arthur Polonsky, Lawrence Kupferman, and Hyman Bloom. Coburn’s spare, abstract forms seem at odds with the Expressionist style that characterized much of the work produced in the 1940s by Museum School students in general, and many of Coburn’s closest friends in particular. The Mirski Gallery, too, favored the Expressionist painters, yet Coburn had access to the latest art magazines while working at the gallery, and was taking in a broad range of modern art with frequent visits to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as well as the IMA in Boston. MoMA’s 1946 exhibition 14 Americans included Coburn’s Boston friend David Aronson alongside national luminaries such as Isamu Noguchi, Robert Motherwell, and Theodore Roszak. At the Institute for Modern Art, Coburn may have seen exhibitions on John Marin and a show of drawings borrowed from the MoMA collection. In addition to the thriving Expressionist style among the Museum school crowd, Coburn and his friends viewed and discussed the gamut of American and European modern movements.
Coburn maintained a lifelong respect for the craft of drawing, and greatly admired the accomplished work of his traditionally schooled peers. Although he would go on to create a visual art quite distinct from the 1940s Boston scene, Coburn felt at home among this group of largely figurative artists, and they, too, welcomed his spare, abstract aesthetic into their midst. The vibrant energy of the local artscene, and no doubt also Coburn’s warm and generous personality, bonded them all together. These years are crucial for understanding Coburn’s unconventional path to artmaking. He was neither a credentialed architect nor an academically-trained artist, yet his varied coursework and the avant-garde atmosphere of his social environment came together to facilitate the development of his unique vision.
Few drawings survive from Coburn’s early years in Boston, and Quincy, Massachusetts: A View of Squantum provides rare, crucial insight into Coburn’s developing aesthetic sensibility. In this ink drawing from 1949, he employs a reductive use of simple lines to capture an impression of the distant harbor landscape around Boston. The strong horizontal and diagonal lines define the composition as a landscape, yet the floating arc and the tiny hatchmark that breaks the horizon suggest details—perhaps a bright reflection and a bridge—distilled to almost pure abstraction from the cacophony of the natural environment. This drawing’s reductive flattening of forms in a landscape would provide a template for the prolific and experimental year ahead.
Coburn’s friend Ellsworth Kelly had completed his degree at the Museum School in 1948 and left for France that autumn. Kelly wrote to Coburn in the spring of 1949 to encourage him to come to Paris, even suggesting that the two might begin a journal entitled Concrete.5 Coburn made plans to sail for Europe and in late May departed Boston with his friends, artists Ninon Lacey and David Aronson. With the exception of a brief, but important trip with Kelly to Brittany in July, Coburn spent that summer and fall living in a room above his aunt and uncle’s bookstore in the Paris suburb of Saint Germaine en Laye. In Paris and in Brittany Coburn embarked on an extremely productive time of creativity. Working with cheap, portable materials that he could hold on his lap in his small bedroom or carry with him into the city every day, Coburn generated a number of elegant, restrained ink drawings of the urban and rural landscape. Indications, Paris Landscape bears some of the same gestural lines as his Squantum drawing from just a few months earlier, yet he has now abandoned the anchoring horizon line. The arc that sweeps from lower left into the center of the composition might suggest one of Paris’s famous bridges, with bright reflections on the Seine below, but the overall effect of the curves and sharp slashes of ink is one of complete abstraction. The open forms resist resolution into clear relationships of scale and one can only marvel at the way in which the artist has dismantled the distinctions between material (perhaps architecture) and immaterial (perhaps light on the water) details. Coburn describes his process of drawing at this time as one of simplification: “I took what I felt was relevant to what I was thinking and I took elements—it’s not very serious. It’s kind of a random choice…I’d look at a scene and see some lines and some spaces and I’d reduce it to some geometric elements. It’s as simple as that, no more complicated.”6 With typical modesty, Coburn deflects any complicated conceptual underpinnings for his work, and instead suggests the intuitive nature of his drawing practice.
In Paris, Coburn connected with Boston colleagues and wasted no time in visiting museums. “I would usually take the train to Paris everyday and would meet Kelly for lunch and we’d go to museums and galleries, and fool around…and socializing, [there was] an awful lot of socializing with a lot of friends from Boston—we would meet for dinner in Paris.”7 Coburn was astonished to discover that John Cage was staying in the same hotel as Ellsworth Kelly, and was thrilled to be able to meet the avant-garde composer a few times that summer. Coburn actively sought out opportunities to meet the local artworld legends and, with Kelly, visited Alice B. Toklas to see Gertrude Stein’s remarkable collection of modern art.8 With the cold and damp seeping into his bones by November he departed Paris for the south of France and rented a spacious apartment in Sanary. The sunny ocean landscape brought color into Coburn’s work and he began to draw with oil on paper, and produce collages with a gummed paper Kelly had discovered in a Parisian shop.9 Used by French schoolchildren, the paper was available in a wide range of colors and provided a similarly affordable alternative to the tissue-like paper Coburn used for his ink drawings.
Coburn must have returned to Paris by February in 1950 because that month he and Kelly, as well as another artist Jack Youngerman, visited Jean Arp at his studio in Meudon. Likely familiar with Arp’s work from his visits to MoMA, where Arp’s Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged according to the Laws of Chance) had been acquired in the 1930s, the studio visit afforded both men an opportunity to understand better the idea of chance in the creation of art and to see a variety of sculpture and works on paper by Arp and his wife Sophie Tauber-Arp. Soon after this visit, Coburn undertook a number of chance-related collages, but typically distinguished his process by describing them as “arranged by choice.” The yellow and white collage began as a surface lightly gridded with pencil, over which Coburn pasted a scatter of yellow triangles. He then cut the sheet into long vertical strips and—by choice—rearranged them into a new composition. A few faint numbers, but out of sequence, are visible along the bottom edge, implying the possibility of reordering the composition and undoing the chaos. Coburn’s preference for “choice” over complete chance, and his use of the grid to underpin the random array of shapes reflects an abiding interest in structure, much as the rigor of architectural drafting provided an undercurrent for his artistic experiments. Coburn continued to refine what he learned from Arp about the effect of chance, and many of his best paintings and collages from the 1950s exhibit a wonderful tension between overall compositional balance and the subtle disruption of small irregularities.
Coburn continued to draw and socialize with friends in Paris that year, studying life drawing at the Académie Julian, and exhibiting his work in June, with Kelly and Youngerman, in the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles. In the fall of 1950, Coburn finally returned to Boston to work again at the Mirski Gallery, where he continued to make drawings and paintings and see exhibitions. In Boston he exhibited his work in the 1954 exhibition 4 American Painters at the Hayden Gallery at MIT and had his first solo show at the Mirski Gallery a year later. Coburn returned to Paris and Sanary three additional times, and continued to expand on the visual ideas so prolifically explored on that first visit in 1949–50. Ink drawings such as Landscape and collages from the early 1950s hint at the broader, flat geometric shapes that would define his mature paintings of this decade. Grounded in an observation of nature, Landscape utilizes the simple contrast of dark and light to suggest shifting relationships between land, sea, and sky. Another collage from his time in Sanary relies on color to anchor the otherwise abstract forms in the observable world of a seaside view. In this work, the delicate and irregular white gap created by the cut edge of the blue paper defines an ocean horizon, and from that reference a small beach and seaside buildings materialize out of the other bits of color. After a final trip to Europe in 1956 that included travel to Italy as well as France, Coburn settled in Boston and took a job in MIT’s Office of Publications. He continues to make art and currently lives in Gloucester and Miami.
These early drawings and collages are remarkable for their elegance and simplicity, and their exhibition is long overdue. Coburn’s career is notable, not only for its aesthetic innovation, but also for the context in which his vision was formed. By all accounts, Coburn might have been an outsider, unanchored to academic credentials and pursuing a visual language foreign to his colleagues. Yet the Boston community, both locally and in France, maintained an inclusive spirit that resonated with Coburn’s own inclination to explore new ideas. Coburn’s quiet, yet significant, role in the shape of modern art in Boston certainly merits further exploration. - Rachael Arauz on David Hall Fine Art | Exhibition